Athletics: Why European Cup has little relevance in Dwain's world

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The Independent Online

According to the adverts currently running on BBC TV, Britain's male athletes will be in Florence this weekend with only one thought in mind - to retain the European Cup. Well, yes. Up to a point.

The promotional message is not strictly true in the case of the athlete who captained Britain's men to victory in Annecy last June, Dwain Chambers. The one thought in Chambers' mind this summer is to win the world 100 metres title, a target which he and his handlers believe will require a testing series of races in Europe first.

It is a reflection upon the uneven nature of the European Cup that Chambers - and presumably those at his management group, Stellar - do not consider this weekend's individual 100m to be sufficiently strong to represent a test. Britain's joint record-holder is due to run in Athens just three days after the European Cup, at Oslo two days after that, in Glasgow two days after that, and in Paris and Rome the following week.

Chambers probably wants to win the European Cup in the same way that Manchester United want to win the Worthington Cup. And he is willing to play a part in the effort, having committed his services to Britain's sprint relay squad for the weekend.

But his ambivalence to the event reflects the fact that his main challenges this year - with the important exception of fellow Brits such as Mark Lewis-Francis and Jason Gardener - will come from outside Europe in the form of sprinters from the United States, Africa, and, assuming Kim Collins maintains his current momentum, St Kitts and Nevis.

Mentioning Chambers' position recently to a colleague, I encountered a reaction of incredulity: "What's he worrying about? It's only going to take him 10 seconds, isn't it?''

Well yes. Up to a point. But for a sprinter the event is just as much about making the effort to get into the right frame of mind when the gun goes, a process which makes its own particular demands.

In practical terms, Chambers' decision is not likely to have a huge impact upon the British men's chances of retaining the trophy they have secured on four of the last six occasions. Indeed, even had he wanted to run the individual 100m he would probably not have got the place, given the 10.07sec Lewis-Francis produced in defeating both him and Gardener in Ostrava the week before last.

Chambers' attitude, nevertheless, contrasts markedly with that of the man with whom he shares the British record of 9.87, Linford Christie. Winning at the European Cup was generally a breeze for Christie, who won the 100m eight times between 1987 and 1997, setting a European Cup best of 10.04 in his last race. But he seemed to think it was worth turning up every year, even after he had become world and Olympic champion. Indeed, Christie also won five 200m titles and contributed to four relay wins, giving himself far and away the best record in the competition of any athlete.

Of course, Chambers is far from the only top flight British performer to have shied away from European Cup demands. Over the years, a number of box offices names have, as Del Boy would say, given it a swerve, and most of them have hidden behind the excuse of injury rather than writing to UK Athletics in advance as Chambers did.

This absenteeism is partly a reflection upon the nature of an event that, for many, comes at an inconveniently early stage of the outdoor season. It is also true that the decision taken 10 years ago to turn what was a biennial event into an annual one has also diminished the European Cup's resonance within the athletics world, a point readily acknowledged by the UK Athletics Performance Director Max Jones as he spoke about Chambers' decision last week.

What has not been diminished, thankfully, is a format - eight points for a win, seven for second, down to one point for last - which guarantees feverish computations towards the end of the two-day competition.

It would be untrue, however, to say the European Cup is the most confusing competition in athletics - top of the podium in that respect are the decathlon and heptathlon. Were you to witness the rising, deadline-induced alarm inside the press box on occasions when Dean Macey has entered the climatic 1500m in search of a world medal, or when Denise Lewis set off in measured fashion for two concluding laps of the track at the Olympics - well, thank God you haven't. Charts are consulted with increasing alacrity and decreasing certainty. Elsewhere in the grandstand the high priests of statistics - such as Peter Matthews, the BBC's Mark Butler or the former BBC advisor Stan Greenberg - receive a stream of anxious visitors.

Someone will announce that Denise only needs to run 2min 15sec or better to be sure of gold. Someone else will immediately disagree, and point out that if the Russian beats the Swede, and the German gets sub-2.12, then Lewis could be back on silver. Or worse.

Like a mirage, the story shimmers on the horizon until the announcer, and the scoreboard and perhaps even the exhausted but exultant athlete clarify it in the minds of the flummoxed Fourth Estate.

Thankfully, the European Cup is just a little more intelligible than those two convoluted disciplines. Like the Eurovision song contest, it is an event where interest builds with the score - and where an unexpected nul points can have dramatic consequences. For Dwain Chambers, it may not be required competition. But it is nevertheless required viewing.

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